By Colin Harris Conchcom Ltd
Anyone who’s been in the presenting game for any length of time has probably had a presentation or demo go spectacularly wrong…. Anyone who has done Stand Up Comedy for any length of time has had the dubious pleasure of dying on stage – but there are some gigs that are so bad that everyone dies – we call these car crashes…. Once more, big thanks to Terry Simpson for proof-reading.
People have asked me what it’s like doing a really bad gig – well here’s something I wrote a couple of years ago to amuse my comedic friends… enjoy..
Car Crash (adj) Comedian slang for a really bad gig, e.g. “How was that gig on Friday?” “Car crash, mate, absolute carnage.”
Whenever a bunch of comedians meet up (is the collective noun for a group of comedians a gaggle?) we talk about gigs. Nobody wants to hear stories about how you absolutely smashed it, how the crowd begged you for an encore. No, what they want to hear is about the gigs that went bad… Especially if it wasn’t just you who died… Everybody loves a good car crash story.
Well, here’s one I wrote a few years back about a gig I MC’d. The MC or Compere is the person who starts the show, introduces the act, gets the crowd warmed up and basically in the right frame of mind so that the rest of the acts have great gigs.
Big Warning – I wrote this as a comedian for comedians (it got great feedback) so some of the language is a little bit ripe and there’s a few slang terms in there as well… Hopefully context will explain them.
I’d agreed to MC Lisa D’s Aristocrats gig as she’d managed to double book herself and was supposed to be doing a gig in Derby at the same time. And I thought women could multi-task. She told me it was at the social club, I had visions of a bear-pit of a gig, ranks of grizzled men and women slowly supping warm beer, some bloke coming up in the break and saying “Here’s one for you, there were these two Pakistanis…”
I was wrong, it was The Social Club. On Temple Street in Birmingham, by the Cathedral and where all the upwardly-mobile bright young things go to play. What we used to call a trendy wine bar back in the 80’s… The 80’s being when I was last considered remotely trendy. She also told me that they normally get between 20 – 30 punters who sit there quietly facing the front and laugh like drains at anything remotely funny. So it sounded like it could be fun… And fun it was indeed.
I got there at 7:52 and it was rammed. If you can imagine a trendy wine bar that is comfortable with 60 people in, then try to imagine one that has 3 to 4 times that number shoved into it. Historians may make note at this point that this was the Thursday before Good Friday, and thus the last evening before a 4-day weekend. I managed to bump into Johnny P and together we managed to track down Lisa who was just about to leave. She introduced us to the landlord. He told us that a number of leaving do’s had decided to partake of his hospitality that evening, he also said that he’d told them there was comedy going on and that they were all really up for it. I think that’s what he said but the background noise was peaking at RB211 just before take-off level. He showed me the sound system. It looked the sort of thing that Led Zeppelin would choose – if they were going to play a gig in a two berth caravan and didn’t want to wake up the toddlers who were very light sleepers. I realised shouting would probably be required. Note for my American readers – a caravan is what you guys call a trailer…
Billy and Danny had also arrived; I’d met Danny before but not Billy. Lisa had suggested that he went on towards the end as he was a bit dark. Billy told me he’d played the Hollybush (a well-known comedy club in the West Midlands) the other week and had gone on first. Now students of comedy know that they like it dark at the Bush. But after his set Wolfie (owner of the Hollybush Pub and legend) had suggested that next time Billy plays it he goes on towards the end. I realised he’d be a bit dark in the way that Karl Marx’s philosophy of ‘The Workers Control of Factories as a Means to Destroy the Industrial Bourgeoisie” might be described as ‘a bit left of centre’. Hannah arrived and we all shared mutual thoughts of ‘this could be tough’.
The stage area was a small clearing at the back of the room with the sort of portable backdrop you see in a shopping centre where someone is demonstrating a magic mop or a new method of eyebrow plucking. There was a mic stand and a mic and the cable snaked away into the distance where it made its way to the sound desk. So the stage area was at ground level surrounded by a few tables where various office parties sat and around which the main throng stood in huddles laughing and flirting, the lighting was dim and sexy which sort of suited the clientele. For those of you who don’t know me I should point out that not being on a raised stage isn’t an issue as I’m 6’ 7”. Those of you who do know me may be slightly amazed at that fact as I look about 5’ 9”. So the big issue was going to be people seeing us.
At 8.20 I announced the comedy would be starting in 10 minutes. I think a couple of people noticed. 10 minutes later I stepped up to the mic and said in a very loud voice “WELCOME TO ARISTOCRATS.” And then something amazing happened. The talking stopped. Everyone looked at the stage. Those who could sit did so, the rest stood around and laughed like drains at everything remotely funny.
This actually happened. Really, honestly, it did. That is if you believe that Heisenberg’s uncertainty theory must lead to an infinite number of universes. So in a universe somewhere Colin Harris was MC’ing this gig and everybody listened. Plus, if Heisenberg is right then there was also a universe where a chrysanthemum called Colin is standing in front of a field of poppies and they’re having a great time as well. Excuse me for a moment cos I need to go and see a bloke called Schrödinger about a cat.
Unfortunately, in the universe we are in, about 10 people applauded and the rest carried on as if nothing had happened. There was a table of girls right by the stage and they were great all night, really supportive and laughers; there was a corner area to my left where people showed some interest – more about them later. And there were a few random guys and gals who showed some sign of comedy life. I did some bantering and tried a few jokes and the girls laughed and the people who were listening laughed as well. Plus I felt my throat tear slightly as I had to shout to make myself heard. This just had the effect of making the rest talk a bit louder. Anyway after about ten minutes of this I felt that it was as good as it was going to get so I announced that they should welcome the first act…
He’s known on the West Mids comedy circuit by us comedians as ‘Big Johnny P’, this is because he’s about 6’ 5”. Any non-comedians reading this should just skip over this as understanding how such comedic genius works is probably beyond you. All I will say is that the clue is that he’s tall, so we call him big. Anyway Johnny P started his schizzle and the girls were laughing and the rest carried on with their plans of oblivion.
After about ten minutes a guy approached me. He looked like an accountant. He told me that that chap said something quite amusing back then and he thought he was quite funny however he couldn’t really hear him that well. I nodded sympathetically. He then said he’d got an idea. He admitted he’d never done any comedy but he was quite an experienced public speaker. “What you should do is grab the microphone and shout, really shout, and ask everyone to shut up.” I said I was with him so far but didn’t mention that I’d been really shouting and that my vocal chords were fraying like a Primark T shirt after a bio wash. “And then, this is the cunning bit, when they shut up you tell them to be quiet for 1 minute while you tell some jokes and that if they don’t think you’re funny, then they can throw things.”
I spotted the major flaw in his plan and consoled myself that he probably hadn’t seen my act. Then I thought maybe he had seen my act. Anyway, call me a coward if you like but laying down the gauntlet with the line “Throw things if I’m not funny” was not what I wanted my final words to be.
Johnny P finished off after 20 minutes and got a great reception from the girls. We shared a nod. A nod that says “well I was a hit with 4% of the audience so job well done.”
I called for a break. I think a few people noticed. I stood outside with Hannah and convinced her that playing her guitar was the right thing to do. That guitars were magic wands that would instantly calm crowds and turn this crazy gig around.
“Bees, eh, what’s that all about? They flit over you, have a swig of your nectar, nick your pollen and then eff off to the flower next to you, b*******s.” The poppies went wild for that one.
Meanwhile in our universe I did some more bantering. Unbeknown to me a young wag crept over to the mic cable and was in the process of pulling apart the connector. Fortunately, Danny R spotted him and intervened. In the ensuing mêlée I was able to deliver my own personal tribute to the late great Norman Collier. Danny made the nasty man stop it and even faced down his mates who were up for it. Brave or what?
Anyway, after this mic foolery I got things back on track and welcomed on stage….
Hannah S. The girls liked her and she did some stand up and then she said she was going to sing and play her guitar. Unfortunately, the mic stand holder was a bit loose so I had to help her jam the mic at the right angle. She took up her guitar and started to play “Paradise City” and the effect was magical. People stopped and looked and started laughing and clapping along. Then the landlord emerged from the crowd brandishing a knife with which he attempted to adjust the mic stand. The knife touched the mic and the feedback wailed like a banshee with haemorrhoids, kids in caravans across the country were woken up. The mic stand was adjusted but the magic spell was broken. Hannah started the song again but the majority had gone back to their conversations once more. We can only dream of what the gig could’ve been – beware of knife wielding landlords has now become my motto.
Chrysanthemum Colin did a bit about having a good mothers’ day mainly because he didn’t end up in a vase. The poppies lapped it up. Meanwhile I coaxed my vocal chords into life once more and after 4 minutes of nonsense called for.
Danny R. He strode the performance area with the presence of a man who can deter cable meddling hoodlums. He did a joke and the girls laughed, plus a small section behind me exploded with gales of laughter. Thus buoyed up, Danny carried on. More shrieks and gales of laughter, unfortunately this didn’t coincide with anything approaching a punchline. I looked round me and saw the reason for the jocularity. Apparently ‘Steve’, the wit of the accounts payable department was regaling his colleagues with tails of purchasing mishaps. I caught the tail end of the one about the time he’d bought 700 boxes of A5 paper instead of 700 boxes of A4 paper. The punchline was “I thought they was cheap!!!” Young Sandra, a buxom blonde was fixing him with big bedroom eyes and told him he ought to go and do some stand up. Steve caught my eye and I made the universal gesture of “You can do 5 minutes if you like”. Steve thought about it and realised wisely that 5 minutes of how he bought the wrong things, punchline “I thought they was cheap!!!” would probably not fly and that it could ruin his chance of getting his leg over young Sandra. He murmured something about not wanting to show up the other acts and went back to talking to Sandra’s bosom.
I missed most of Danny’s set as Lou C, who’d just arrived, grabbed me and said we needed to talk. We wandered outside where I have my office. He’d got his hands on his knees and was looking rough. He told me he’d been throwing up all evening, and then stopped and had another retch. He looked pretty bad and I glanced around fully expecting to see the Grim Reaper nonchalantly hanging around waiting for business. I told myself that if Lou croaked I would nick his wine routine, it’s what he’d want. He said he needed to go home and I told him it was OK, I decided death or no death I’d do his wine routine for him that night.
I went back in, Danny finished and I called a break. During the break I told the others that Lou was ill and said to Billy that he could do as long as he liked.
I did my remembrance day stuff and the poppies cried with laughter – know your audience. I did some stuff about growing up in Brum (Birmingham) and the girls laughed. Flushed with success I called for and got the one called…
Billy R. Who started a bit dark. His favourite song is probably ‘a darker shade of dark’. I know that use of the C word may offend. Ben B does a routine about it, and very funny it is too. I was there the night when he asked the audience if they were offended by the C word and some girl shouted out “do you mean cucumber?”. Billy used the C word, in the same way that you and I use haemoglobin as a means of transferring oxygen, that is constantly. He interspersed it with the F word so we got a stream of scatological binary with 1 being the C word, and zero being the F word. Later analysis revealed he’d actually said “Go now, flee my children, flee, for our earthly bodies have been transcended. I’m a little teapot.”
The audience were starting to notice. He then mined the comedy dark that is paedophilia, necrophilia and radical mastectomies. Jerry Sadowicz, who’d popped in to see what was going on, winced and left, shaking his head. The audience were starting to boo and shout stuff. He then went even darker and the boos got louder, but he kept going like a demented marionette being jerked by a foul-mouthed puppeteer. The fat lady wasn’t singing but she was screaming “Fanny cancer is not comedy. I hope you get fanny cancer.” She was one of the group who’d listened all the way through. I deduced she was drunk. And whilst I’ve no formal medical training; 15 years of watching ‘Holby City’ (a popular UK hospital drama) has got to count for something. I was not aware of the carcinoma named after the diminutive of Frances, believing Billy may be confusing cervical or perhaps ovarian metastases. However, this was not the time for me to point this out to William. He reached a crescendo and left the stage to a flood of catcalls. Danny had videoed the set so perhaps we will be able to see it on YouTube…
I went back on stage and decided to do a few minutes of material (possibly about wine) to restore calm and to send the good denizens home on a happy note. However, the landlord had switched the sound system off so I shouted out a few thanks and the girls cheered. And we declared the gig closed. No doubt 96% of the people in the bar may think sometime over the weekend that they thought there was supposed to be some comedy on that night. Then they’d shrug and forget such foolish notions. I spoke with the rest of the gang, Billy told us he’d enjoyed it. Normal Aristocrat rules say that the acts other than the headliner get paid from donations. Johnny P and I decided that asking for donations after Billy’s rant on fanny cancer would probably be a tad futile. We wished each other ‘Merry Easter’ and I left.
Outside Steve was chatting with Sandra who appeared very unsteady. Without warning she leant forward and let the contents of her stomach cascade over his shoes and shins. I knew how he felt. Welcome to show business.